- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BALTIMORE — The accused mastermind of a massive fire at a Charles County subdivision in December hatched the plan to make a name for the gang he was trying to form and establish himself as its feared leader, federal prosecutors said yesterday.

Patrick Walsh recruited members for the group, known as the Family, and came up with the plan to set fire to several dozen homes at the Hunters Brooke development in Indian Head in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 6, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger.

“He wanted to be the leader of a gang that ran things in Charles County,” Miss Sanger said in opening statements of Mr. Walsh’s trial. “He wanted the Family to be people you didn’t mess with, people you feared.”

But Mr. Walsh’s attorney, William Purpura, said the government’s case is short on forensic evidence, resting instead on statements made by Mr. Walsh’s so-called accomplices, many of whom have proved themselves as liars.

Mr. Walsh, 21, faces conspiracy charges and multiple counts of arson for setting the fires along with four other men. His trial, which began Tuesday in U.S. District Court, is expected to take three weeks. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each count of arson and conspiracy.

The fires destroyed 10 homes and damaged 16 others at the development, which was still largely under construction. Investigators found flammable material in several other houses that had not been set on fire.

No one was injured, but a family that lived in the one occupied house was forced to flee the flames. The incident, which caused $10 million in damage, was the worst case of residential arson in Maryland history.

Mr. Walsh’s case is the first trial of five men accused of setting the fires.

Two of the others, Aaron Speed and Jeremy Parady, pleaded guilty and may testify against Mr. Walsh.

Authorities have said the men had a variety of motives.

Speed, who worked as a security guard at the site, was angry at his employer and the wealthy residents who were moving into the development. In his plea agreement, Parady said he targeted Hunters Brooke because most residents are black.

All five men accused in the crime are white.

Prosecutors have not said Mr. Walsh was driven by race. Instead, Miss Sanger said, he wanted to gain notoriety for the Family, a group that coalesced around a mutual interest in cars that they raced on Southern Maryland roads.

Mr. Purpura said the Family was little more than a group of friends who shared an interest in cars and often met at a Waldorf-based Denny’s restaurant for late-night meals.

Speed changed his story several times when he was questioned by investigators after his arrest, Mr. Purpura said, adding that Speed “is going to define what a liar is.”

Mr. Walsh was at home in nearby Fort Washington working on his computer at the time of the fires, the attorney said. Mr. Purpura said evidence from cell-phone calls would prove he was not at Hunters Brooke.

“Patrick Walsh is not guilty of this horrific crime,” Mr. Purpura said.

Early testimony yesterday included Terri Rookard, who was asleep with her young children in the only occupied house when the fires began.

Pausing often to gather herself, Miss Rookard described seeing houses around her burn fiercely, and the harrowing flight as she and her family drove out of the neighborhood to escape.

“There was fire everywhere,” she said. “We didn’t know if we would make it out.”

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